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December 5, 2006

Aggies face tough road on first trip

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There have certainly been more spectacular performances, but no team has been as consistently dominant as Texas A&M this season.

While most of the other top-10 teams survived a scare or endured an upset or two, the No. 6 Aggies spent November rolling from one lopsided victory to the next on their way to building a 7-0 record.

The veteran-laden squad has won every game by double digits and five by 30 or more points. Their average margin of victory is a whopping 28.5 points a game.

Opponents are averaging just 48.9 points per game and shooting an icy 30.7 percent from the field - both the lowest numbers among all 334 Division I schools. Saint Louis scored just 33 total points against the Aggies and was held to 13 at the half.

But plenty of doubt still surrounds the Big 12's hottest program because of A&M's poor strength of schedule. Saint Louis (5-2) is the only team they've faced with a winning record.

The Aggies' schedule gets much tougher this week.

A&M hits the road to face a pair of top-10 teams, meeting No. 9 LSU (4-1) Tuesday and No. 1 UCLA (6-0) in Anaheim, Calif., on Saturday. The brutal two-game stretch was part of coach Billy Gillispie's effort to create a tougher non-conference schedule. These two games will play a pivotal role in their effort to land a favorable seed in the 2007 NCAA Tournament.

We examine A&M's matchups, the Jimmy V Classic and three in-state rivalry games this week in A Look Ahead:

Texas A&M's road trip
No. 6 Texas A&M (7-0) at No. 9 LSU (4-1) - Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET

This is a rematch of a second-round battle in the 2006 NCAA Tournament. The Tigers escaped with a 58-57 win and ended the Aggies' breakout season in Jacksonville, Fla. The Aggies return every key player from that team. A&M's remains a defense-oriented squad, but they do feature one main difference in the form of a 6-foot-10 Lithuanian. Forward Antanas Kavaliauskas has improved immensely, nearly doubling his scoring and rebounding averages. He's averaging 12.0 points and 5.7 rebounds, and his emergence gives the Aggies' offense a third weapon along with the inside-outside tandem of Acie Law (15.0 ppg) and Joseph Jones (15.1 ppg). LSU lost two of its top players, top-five draft pick Tyrus Thomas and clutch-shooting guard Darrel Mitchell, but they remain dangerous thanks to the return of power forward Glen Davis (18.8 ppg). Davis is surrounded by a pair of talented wings, Tasmin Mitchell (13.6 ppg) and Marquette transfer Dameon Mason (8.6 ppg). The Tigers' lone loss came at home to mid-major power Wichita State, 57-53.
No. 6 Texas A&M (7-0) vs. No. 1 UCLA (6-0) in Anaheim, Calf. - Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET

UCLA's improved offense will be put to the test in this matchup. With the speedy Darren Collison (12.0 ppg) at point guard, the Bruins are getting out in transition more and creating easy baskets. They're averaging 80.0 points per game, a total they only reached five times last season. But Collison hasn't had to face a point guard of Law's caliber for a full game. Still, the key matchup will be UCLA shooting guard Arron Afflalo (16.7 ppg) vs. A&M defensive specialist Dominique Kirk (1.6 spg). The Bruins like to run Afflalo off a number or screens in their halfcourt sets, and Kirk can't give him much space to maneuver. UCLA's versatile small forward Josh Shipp (13.5 ppg) could be the X-factor.
Jimmy V Classic in New York City (Madison Square Garden) - Tuesday
No. 14 Arizona (5-1) vs. Louisville (2-1) - 9:30 p.m. ET

This will be the first big test for the Cardinals, who have yet to face anyone from a major conference. The Cards fell to Dayton 68-64, but were playing without highly touted freshman Derrick Caracter, who had to serve a three-game suspension for accepting gifts from a family friend. The five-star center will make his debut in this matchup. Caracter gives the Cards another much-needed offensive threat against the fast-paced Wildcats, who have already broken the 100-point barrier twice. All five of Arizona's starters, including athletic wing Chase Budinger (19.8 ppg) - one of the nation's top freshmen - average well into double figures.
No. 22 Oklahoma State (9-0) vs. No. 21 Syracuse (7-1) - 7 p.m. ET

Nobody is ready to say the Cowboys and Orange are NCAA Tournament teams yet, but the winner here will take a big step in that direction. The Cowboys boast a great inside-outside tandem with center Mario Boggan (20.1 ppg) and guard JamesOn Curry (18.0 ppg). The Orange, who fell to Wichita State at home last week, are more balanced with four players averaging between 10.3 points and 15.3 ppg. This game will likely be won or lost on the glass. The Orange have four players that measure 6-8 or taller playing significant minutes. All of the Cowboys' starters are 6-7 or shorter.
Rivalry Games
No. 16 Memphis (5-1) at Tennessee (6-2) - Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET

These two programs are located on opposite sides of Tennessee, but bragging and recruiting rights are on the line here. Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl would love to make some in-roads in the recruiting hotbed of Memphis, where Tigers coach John Calipari has signed several big-name prospects. But Pearl and the Vols are in bigger need of a win for the moment. Losses to Butler and North Carolina in the NIT Season Tip-Off have many wondering if the Vols are just too young to reproduce the magic they had last season. The Tigers aren't talented enough to be an elite team anymore, but they still have more than enough offensive firepower to turn this into a shootout. Translation: first team to 90 wins.
No. 13 Washington (6-0) at No. 18 Gonzaga (8-1) - Saturday, 11 p.m. ET

The Huskies have the higher ranking, but they also come in with more to prove. The 'Zags have already shown they can be an NCAA Tournament threat without Adam Morrison, knocking off then-No. 2 North Carolina in the NIT Season Tip-Off. Gonzaga has developed a new identity as a more balanced team with a rising star in the frontcourt in center Josh Heytvelt (16.8 ppg). The Huskies are also more balanced without Brandon Roy, but they've played a fairly weak schedule up until now. Freshman wing Quincy Pondexter (17. 2 ppg) has been the big surprise, outshining top-10 recruit Spencer Hawes (11.2 ppg). The key matchup should be inside, where the tandem of Hawes and Jon Brockman (12.5 ppg) will look to slow down Heytvelt.
No. 11 Wisconsin (7-1) at No. 17 Marquette (8-1), Saturday, 2 p.m. ET

This will be a classic battle of size versus speed. The Golden Eagles, who are coming off a shocking upset to North Dakota State, will look to spread the floor and push the pace with at least three guards on the court at all times. The Badgers want to overpower Marquette on the inside with star forward Alando Tucker (19.1 ppg) and the rest of their large frontcourt. Like Tucker, Golden Eagles point guard Dominic James (17.4 ppg) can single-handily take over games - he scored his team's final 18 points in a dramatic win over Valparaiso last week. Look for Tucker and James to both have big games, leaving the outcome to come down to whichever supporting cast performs better.

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